Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Muth, Jae: Women, Structure, and the Construction of Islam in Modernity

Jae Muth

RELG 270

18 November 2019

Prof J. Mahallati

Women, Structure, and The Construction of Islam in Modernity

How does one define a cohesive, legible Muslim world—especially within the context of modernity, neoliberalism, and the nation-state as the dominant mode of political understanding? Islam throughout history has been highly invested in the twin processes of state-building and identity formation. In a colonial and post-colonial world, these questions take on another element of complexity: how does one balance the need to resist the imposition of foreign rule, while at the same time working within the context of history and religion and a highly developed system of ethics and social justice that requires welfare for its members? In much of the Islamic world, these questions are in particular embodied by the way that the state, and the larger culture, treats people who are not cisgender men.[1] Gender is posited as a problem, particularly in the context of Western feminisms that seek to be global which are in and of themselves highly interested in colonialism and which may benefit, intentionally or not, from characterizations of women in the non-West as uniquely weak, oppressed, or restrained by religion. At the same time as I question these characterizations, I recognize the way that religion can and does interact with gender in potentially harmful ways. In the colonial and post-colonial Islamic world, gender is a problem for the nation-state that exemplifies the tensions brought about by the intersection of politics, religion, and foreign interference and colonialism.

Barakat’s thesis—which uncritically asserts that the family is a “relatively cohesive social institution”[2] which serves as a “society in miniature” [3]— asserts that the changing family structures of the Islamic world are a problem which must be solved. For Barakat, “stratified and patriarchal relations are common to all”[4] in the Arab world. His reading of the situation of families asserts that gender roles, and the relatively static nature of family structures, are inherently necessary to the functioning of a bounded, hierarchical society with established order, and in which “change” is a “challenge” rather than something which is inherent to social life itself. This attempt to impose a universal structure upon the entirety of the Muslim world—to say that all Muslims are like this, have this understanding of gender and family life—elides the sheer diversity of Muslim life and particularly the diversity of views on gender. Moghaddam and Mitra write: “The Muslim world is too vast and differentiated for there to exist a homogenous “Muslim woman”. Muslim women are situated in diverse socio-political, economic, and cultural contexts.”[5] How is it possible for the entire Muslim world to have the same family structure, at the same time that Muslim women do not all exist in the same place and have wildly different understandings of the world?

As Foucault writes in his History of Sexuality, the state’—or, in this case, religion’s— power to “take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.”[6] Power’s new focus on life in modernity is explicitly stressed in its attention to issues of family and sexuality; Muslim family law in the modern period is a particular example of this. In order to attempt to build something like a cohesive group, some Muslim thinkers defined for themselves a particular family structure which was encoded into law sexuality and reproduction and therefore life itself. However, others have challenged this idea and its attempt at a universalizing structure which must be followed by everyone within the Muslim world, or even the idea of a Muslim world at all; this perspective helps to challenge the idea of a cohesive Muslim identity or Islam which does not contain different interpretations. Esmail critiques the attempt to conceive of  a uniform “civil society” with uniform “philosophical, political, and social characteristics”[7]especially within the context of Islam, which he calls a “geographical” or “religio-cultural”[8] object. In doing so, he begins to decrease the intensity of the idea of Islam or the “Islamic world” as a bounded concept with tangible borders, which does not extend into other spheres or in and of itself have exceptions already within it—namely, the fact that non-Muslims can and do live within countries ostensibly Muslim.

Another form of structure that these scholars impose upon the “Islamic world” is explicitly marked as cultural in nature: the status of women. Barakat furthers the problematic understanding of women, and particularly girls, as well as the family structure: he makes reference to the phenomenon of Arab fiction which depicts “the dilemma of Arab girls who must choose between abiding by their parents’ will and making their own choices”.[9]  This binary opposition between two poles of behavior—the girl who has her own choices, who is in control of her sexuality and narrative—and the girl who follows the directions of her parents may be something which anecdotally is experienced by some girls in the Arab world, but by no means needs to be the universal narrative that all girls in the Arab, or even the wider Muslim, world experience. This distinction erases all of the other possibilities for girls and women: what about girls who follow some of their parents’ will, but not all of it? What about those for whom parental will is a positive, beneficial thing? The way that Barakat brings up this binary opposition of roles demonstrates an attempt to create a universalized Muslim narrative of women. This narrative characterizes them as always already participants in this binary dilemma with highly morally coded poles.

This distinction—between women who have agency, and women who do not—exists in many other contexts, and reproduces the Muslim woman as othered, weak, and oppressed, particularly in the context of global narratives presented by various feminisms. While some Muslim thinkers and others have attempted to find examples that give the agency back to women, particular focuses—particularly the discourse on and about the veil—reproduce this distinction. Even within Muslim thought, the representation of the veil is problematic: it is always in opposition to a for of femininity that is morally suspect, and, moreover, presented as a problematic and oppressive force in and of itself. Barakat writes: “Yet despite the achievements of women in many fields, they continue to suffer from severe problems even on the most elementary level. The veil is still omnipresent in several Arab countries and is widespread in others.”[10] This characterization of the veil as a problem—as something which must be removed in order for women to participate in society— rather than the attitudes that force women to wear the veil against their will or not elides women’s agency and the fact that for many it is a legitimate expression of devotion.

Ultimately, many have attempted to construct a uniform Muslim world which treats women the same way and which has a cohesive attitude towards social issues. The narrative of women in the Muslim world as being uniquely without agency often decreases the amount of agency that they may actually experience, and may allow others to further decrease that agency. These binary constructions are also used in order to make wider representations about the Muslim world, with lasting impacts on the status of nation-states and their peoples.


[1] When I say cisgender here, what I mean is someone whose gender as it is socially and internally realized in a way that matches the sex that they were assigned at birth. It is the opposite of transgender.

[2] Barakat, Halim. “The Arab Family and the Challenge of Change.” In The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1993,108.

[3] Ibid., 118

[4] Ibid.

[5] Moghadam, Valentine and Namrata Mitra. “Women and gender in the Muslim world”. In Islam in the Modern World, eds. Jeffrey T. Kenney and Ebrahim Moosa. New York: Routledge. 2014, 152.

[6] Foucault, Michel, and Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1990, 138.

[7] Esmail, Aziz. “Self, Society, Civility, and Islam”. In Civil Society in the Muslim World: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Amyn B Sajoo. New York: J. B. Tauris Publishers. 2002, 66.

[8] Ibid.

[9] 108

[10] Barakat, 105.

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